All summer long he sat by the docks and sewed.
Day after day his little fingers would work as he sewed together cloth to make sails for the local fishermen. For just a handful of pennies, the little boy would make sails as fine and strong as any man who called himself a sailmaker, but instead of a sheet of clean white canvas, he made a motley patchwork.
There were no other sails like his.
Each evening, when the sailors had disappeared into the taverns, he made his rounds through the merchant dumpsters. He’d collect any bit of discarded canvas or cloth deemed too small or irregular to be of any use. Folding it carefully, as if it were a fine piece of silk instead of discarded rags, he’d take his bundle to an abandoned boatshed at the end of the dock.
Every night that he returned with a bundle of rags was a blessing.
He felt like a king as he wrapped himself in these shreds of cloth. They were so soft beneath him and they kept out the chill which crept in off the water.
In the morning, he’d rise early with the sun.
As the sailors went about their business preparing their vessels or emptying cargo, he’d sit on the dock, his feet swinging off the end as he sewed. His hands worked deftly as he stitched piece onto piece. Day after day went by, and always the sailors saw him perched on the dock.
Soon his face and arms turned brown under the summer sun.
When he was done, he spread out his patchwork sails across the boardwalk, admiring his handiwork. Each piece on its own was an odd shape. But taken together it became part of a fine sail for any fisherman to unfurl upon his boat.
The stitching was tight, and the thread was strong.
So the local fishermen were pleased enough to offer him a few pennies for his sails.
With every payment the little boy beamed with pride. While any other boy his age might have spent their coins on treats, he only ever bought food, or if he really must he’d buy new socks.
He learned long ago just how important socks can be on a cold night.
The wind blew with a chill on its breath as summer changed to autumn.
Ships were tied down to the docks, waiting for spring to chase away the storms. As the sailors wasted their pay on drink, and the fishermen brought out their stores of salted fish, the little boy found less and less scraps with which he could make his sails.
Still, like a stray dog patrolling the butchers, he climbed through the rubble in the merchants’ dumpsters, shivering against the biting wind as he searched for cloth. Sometimes he got lucky and found a few pieces of torn canvas. Other nights he’d search for hours, and find nothing other than soiled handkerchiefs.
Gathering the lean bundle of rags, he’d sit under a cool grey sky, his feet swinging over the water as he sewed. He kept his thread and needle in a tiny leather pouch which he tied around his neck.
The solid little weight rested comfortingly against his heart.
It had been his Papa’s needle.
His father had been a sailor. Paying the inn-keeper in advance to keep his room saved for him and his boy, he’d sail away for entire winters. When he came back, his son would wait for him at the docks, eyes shining with excitement. He’d watch his Papa work with the other sailors as they brought out barrels of salted meat and rolls of seal skins.
He could hear his booming laugh from the docks.
And the sight of his bearded smile made the boy’s heart soar.
When his Papa had unpacked, the little boy would sit for hours before a roaring fire at the inn, listening eagerly to his tales of monstrous waves and creatures of the deep.
Those were his sweetest memories.
Before his last voyage, Papa took him aside at the docks before boarding the ship.
‘Here you are, my boy,’ he said cheerfully in his booming voice. He took one of the boy’s small hands in his great big calloused ones and gave him the little leather pouch. The boy looked down at the gift, his eyes wide with wonder.
‘Are you sure?’ he whispered, unbelieving.
‘All a good sailor needs to get by is thread and a sturdy needle,’ his face beamed as he spoke. ‘You’re a good boy, son, and some day you’ll be an excellent sailor. So now this is yours.’
The boy’s eyes shone with pride.
He pushed out his narrow chest and closed his fingers around the pouch.
As his father embraced him, pressing him tightly against his chest, he could feel his Papa’s beating heart. The beat was strong and even. It seemed to him it was louder than even the crashing waves.
Then they pulled apart and his father boarded the ship.
The giant vessel grew smaller and smaller as it drew away on the outgoing tide. He didn’t know it then, but that powerful ship wouldn’t survive its voyage.
And his Papa would never come home.
The wooden deck was coated in a thin layer of ice.
Snowflakes drifted down from the deep grey sky and melted on the lapping waves. He hunched in his usual spot on the docks. His hands shook as he pushed the fine tip of the needle through a scrap of cloth.
He’d found barely enough material to make a tablecloth.
And even then, who’d buy a patchwork of old rags?
Still, he pulled the needle through the cloth, thinking that it might make a nice blanket for the night if he finished before dark. The boathouse held no warmth. He shook day and night, listening to the wind roar as it snuck through the cracks between the walls.
When the inn-keeper heard that the boy’s Papa hadn’t come back, he let the boy stay until his coin ran dry, and then turned the lad out. It’s not that he was a heartless sort. But times were difficult, food was costly and every room which could be filled needed to be rented out.
That’s when the boy found the dilapidated boathouse.
He set up his meagre belongings there, and covered the ground with the dirty reeds that the taverns swept out. It wasn’t much, but it offered enough shelter during the warmer months. And from there he could watch the sea. A little part of him still hoped that the shadowy outline of his Papa’s ship would appear, even though so much time had passed.
But now, in the heart of winter, the boatshed offered little comfort.
He felt the winter chill so deep inside him, that even when he pictured a roaring hearth and hot stew, he couldn’t feel its imaginary warmth.
He thought of how warm the summer sun had been.
He thought of the hot tea his Papa used to brew for them.
But no matter what he pictured, nothing would ease the coldness which clutched him in its grip. His chest hurt as he drew each breath. It came out in streams of fog that grew thicker and thicker as the sky darkened.
The lanterns were lit by the docks, but no-one passed by this winter day.
The sailors drank in the taverns, and the fishermen stayed home with their families. The merchants closed their stores early. And the docks lay silent under the falling snow.
As he finished his makeshift blanket and bit off the thread, his numb little fingers dropped the needle. He scrambled after it, his heart in his throat as it slipped down between two ice-covered boards.
He watched as it was swallowed up by the black sea below.
All he could do was stare at the spot it had disappeared, praying it would come back up. He whacked his clumsy fingers against one another, cursing them, but they were too numb to feel even their own touch. Tears welled in his eyes. They froze upon his cheeks as he lay down and wept.
The morning was calm with a clean blue sky.
One by one, the stores opened. First the bakery, and then the butcher, and then the other merchants hoping to sell some wares before the weather turned. As the fishermen went out upon the docks to check their boats, they came across a small grey bundle near the pier. Pulling aside the tattered rags, they found a little boy with frost in his hair and on his eyelashes.
His lips had turned blue.
The fishermen gathered around him in silence. No-one spoke. They could only stare down at the fragile little creature who looked so much like he was sleeping. Finally, one older fisherman knelt down and felt for a pulse.
There was none.
The boy had frozen in the night.
The fishermen looked mournfully at the icy cheeks and stiffened eyelids. Suddenly the day seemed much darker, and the air far colder, as their little sailmaker lay still and silent.